Ten Tips to Attract the 'Sheldons' to Your Agency

Agencies already hold critical tools to recruit and retain highly-skilled workers.

The federal government already holds many of the tools it needs to effectively recruit, hire and retain many of our nation’s smartest and most highly-skilled workers – those in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medical fields. Agencies just need to leverage those tools more effectively, according to a new report.  

The report, “The Biggest Bang Theory: How to Get the Most Out of the Competitive Search for STEMM Employees,” released Wednesday by the Partnership for Public Service and Booz Allen Hamilton, outlines several steps agencies can take to compete with other industries for the so-called “Sheldons” – a reference to the brilliant young physicist in the hit sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

“It’s a good news-bad news story,” Dr. Ronald Sanders, a vice president and fellow at Booz Allen Hamilton, said Wednesday. “The bad news is that STEMM talent is in short supply, and in government, with citizenship and clearance requirements, they further shrink the candidate pool. . . The good news is that the government has a lot of tools as its disposal to compete in that market.”

Roughly one-quarter of the federal government is composed of employees with STEMM skills, with 15.4 percent of those employees working in information technology fields. STEMM fields are even more top-heavy than other federal job fields, with 74 percent of federal STEMM workers over the age of 40, and just 7.6 percent under age 30, according to the report.

So how do agencies effectively compete for STEMM workers while also meeting obligations to federal policies and objectives? The Partnership and Booz Allen Hamilton interviewed 13 federal agencies and five private sector companies to come up with some best practices that “can help agencies sharpen their game for STEMM hiring.”

“We found many positive, proactive steps agencies are taking to bring top STEMM talent on board, practices that in many cases can be replicated across government,” the report states. “These agencies operate under most of the same constraints as any other, but they have worked within the system to maximize their hiring impact.”

The report offers 10 recommendations for landing STEMM talent:

Use the mission as the magnet: Market the unique opportunities only your agency offers.

Recruit upstream: Recruit students as young as their mid-teens up through the college level by hosting workshops, lectures and internships.

Send out the Sheldons: Enlist current STEMM workers to visit college campuses and career fairs to recruit talent.

Keep their eyes on an XPRISE: Use competitions to open the door to talented people.

Go virtual: Use the Internet, social media and other online tools to communicate the mission and opportunities with potential STEMM recruits.

Offer quantum-leap career paths: Allow STEMM workers to take on varied assignments throughout their careers.

Start a chain reaction: Share lists of pre-screened candidates throughout your agency.

Beta-test your talent: Give potential candidates challenging assignments to prove their skills.

Create a Parallel Universe: Offer dual career paths for STEMM workers that allow for opportunities to excel in areas other than management.  

Find the Prime Numbers: Use data and dashboards to measure hiring, performance and job satisfaction.

While the list may seem daunting, Sanders recommends that agencies with high numbers of STEMM jobs begin by forming a close alliance between human resources professionals and the senior technical colleagues. “So many of the strategies outlined depend on a close partnership between the HR people and the people who actually speak the language and have been practicing in the STEMM disciplines,” he said.

At the same time, the government’s employment brand has taken a bit of a hit in light of sequestration, budget cuts and pay freezes, Sanders added. “This is a pretty risky time for management in the federal government,” he said. “Agencies are going to have to try that much harder to say, ‘we are still here, and we are a great employer of STEMM talent.’”